If there’s one question Barcelona’s culinary world is tired of hearing, it’s likely something along the lines of “what’s going to be the next El Bulli?” Nobody more so than Albert Adrià (below, center), chef and principal of the elBarri restaurant group. Working both alongside and separately from his brother, the equally talented Ferran Adrià, he has built a culinary empire that has far-reaching tentacles but lives primarily in a few square-block radius in the Sant Antoni neighborhood of Barcelona, not far from where the brothers grew up in Hospitalet.
It’s a significant measure of success when shuttering the very endeavor that brought one acclaim only serves to embolden one’s career. Such was the case with Adrià who, with his brother, closed El Bulli in 2011, where he was the pastry chef until 1999, after which he was in charge of the creative team until 2008. Since, he’s struck out on his own, creating a gastronomic amusement park of sorts in the heart of Barcelona. This includes a foray into Peruvian and Japanese fusion at Pakta; Mexican, both fancy and casual, at Niño Viejo and Hoja Santa, respectively; vermouth and tapas at the throwback Bodega 1900; and the ultra-famous Tickets, which has become a must-visit destination for forlorn El Bulli-seekers. And now, his latest venture, Enigma, opened quietly this past January just around the corner from his above mentioned restaurants in the former space of his experimental bar 41º. It was in the back of Enigma that I recently spoke to Adrià, mostly through a translator, with whom he spoke in his native language, Catalan.
What is Enigma? An excellent question that Adrià cannot and will not answer. After all, when you’re a proven innovator, creating a next venture to both rival and compete with those of the past is often a difficult proposition. For him, the concept is still maturing, but it’s clear that Enigma is not just a restaurant, it’s more a constantly evolving philosophy that includes many other people’s ideas. Adrià tapped longtime elBarri cook Oliver Peña (below, left) to be Enigma’s head chef, emphasizing the importance of teamwork and ensuring that no one style of philosophy reigns supreme; while Adrià is the keeper of many recipes, his various head chefs end up his interpreters.
What is clear, though, is that Adrià and his team are trying to re-imagine the tasting menu, as well as the formal fine dining experience. Adrià insists that the era of El Bulli is over. “What worked then cannot be possible now,” he explains. “People associate the name ‘Adrià’ with creativity, so they expect that, but I don’t want to go back to what El Bulli did. What matters today is that we make use of the knowledge we uncovered and use it to create amazing dishes.”
While that’s a logical philosophical goal, there’s a monetary imperative, too. “We also have to think: how has dining changed? 10 years ago, to discover how a restaurant did something, you had to actually go eat there. Or buy a book, do a stage. But now, with social media, it’s quicker — you can see something and just figure out how to do it yourself. But creating new techniques, that requires a lot of time and money,”Adrià explains. “Probably, El Bulli was the first restaurant in the industry that dedicated a specific amount of the budget to research. We had staff that were paid to create. I know the complexity and how expensive that is, and that’s not something I want to do at the moment.”
Instead, Adrià, Peña and their team are striving to make dining more accessible, reminding me that Enigma is in the middle of a heavily visited city, rather than on a cliff at the edge of a nature preserve, as El Bulli was. Intellectual accessibility is important, it’s not just about simply being the best. Both chefs agree that they are blessed with an abundance of high quality products owing to the seasons, location and attributes—the mountains and the sea—of Catalonia, which makes their jobs a little bit easier. “Nowadays, people understand that a more casual concept doesn’t have to mean poor quality,” Adrià acknowledges. “But we can’t get too caught up in concept — eventually, people have to be interested in what you’re doing. If they don’t come, then there’s no anything.”
Enigma’s dining room is a dark, synthetic dreamland—almost resembling an ice bar with its Lucite tables, chairs and wall and ceiling décor lit up in jewel tones. At arrival, there is only an iPad where 28 nightly guests input the secret number they received when making their reservation. Walking into a lounge, diners are finally greeted by hosts, who serve a welcome drink. From there, they move through several stations and rooms — a cocktail station, a sommelier station, a grill, to name a few — where they indulge the multiples courses that will be served throughout the evening. A culinary escapade.
In the first eight months of the restaurant’s life, the team has been continually adding, subtracting, editing and combining stations, as well as playing with the order that guests pass through the experience. Peña says that they’re trying to find the right balance between change and perfection. He recalls that at 41º they erroneously altered some quality elements and, learning from that, will only make changes when they’re sure the alternative is better. One dish, Peña says, will likely always remain: a salmon blini, cooked on the plancha. “It’s perfect! 28 people every night, every single one closes their eyes and says, ‘Wow.’ It really is perfect.”
When asked about what exactly he’s trying to achieve with Enigma, Adrià isn’t comfortable explaining in certain terms. Aside from moving on from past legacies, he’s likely still unsure at this early juncture. He wouldn’t even grant interviews about Enigma until after the first three months of service has passed, wanting to make sure that anything said one day would hold relevance the next. For someone whose name is synonymous with clarity and execution, it seems that Adrià is relishing this unknown. “Either the stories end, or you must change them,” Adrià declares. “At the moment, I’m not bothered to explain any story.”
He is certain, though, that he wants to continue to test the limits of accessibility and continue to challenge diners. He explains that he doesn’t want Enigma to be a totally comfortable experience for a guest, rather he wants it to be intense, one that impacts diners after they leave, remembering how they felt long after dining at Enigma. For example, one specific element of the dining experience is a semi-private room with a hibachi grill that keeps coming up in conversation. He explains how what could easily be mistaken for a very nice Japanese steakhouse is actually a psychological experiment.
“I like to work with the psychology of people,” Adrià admits. “Like on the plancha, or grill, where they can eat abalone, sea cucumber or the head of a prawn, which maybe they wouldn’t even eat if they were just sitting at a white tablecloth setting in the very same room. But sitting in front of the chef, with him explaining how they do it, watching it be cooked, they automatically think, ‘Oh, this must be good. I should eat it.’ My hope is they leave thinking, ‘Wow, I ate that, and I probably never would have otherwise.’”
At the time of interview, the team was still editing, as they had just that day decided to do away with a welcome cocktail, opting for a seasonal juice using El Bulli-created techniques, as Adrià thought there was too much alcohol throughout the meal—a criticism he levies on all modern tasting menu experiences. It was also requested that I not reveal other dish specifics. Enigma has a no social media policy, which it asks — not demands — its guests to comply with by not sharing pictures of the food. At first, I was disappointed, but then I wondered: Does it matter? One no longer goes to an Adrià restaurant because of dish specifics; the spherical olive has jumped the culinary shark. Now the Adrià name and its pedigree ensures quality, obsession, creativity and perfection. The meal is going to be good. That’s guaranteed. But to find out more, you’ll have to experience Enigma for yourself. As Adrià wants you to.
At present, the Enigma experience costs 220€. Reservations at http://www.enigmaconcept.es